The Advanced Training: An Opportunity to Deepen Our Understanding of the Subjective

Pages: 4-8
Year: 2005
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Ntegration: The journal of the Rolf Institute – September 2005 – Vol 33 – Nº 03

Volume: 33

Earlier in this series, Michael Salveson and Jeff Maitland addressed the educational value of the Advanced Training, describing the curriculum and stressing the goals of skill deepening and refinement and student empowerment. Michael explained how the Advanced Training enhances the students’ abilities to address the relationship between structure and the field that supports it; and Jeff pointed out that Dr. Rolf’s inquiry concerned the nature and meaning of human embodiment and the person’s relationship with the environment.


This, in turn, raises questions of somatic ontology: how humans are formed and then transformed – by their constant interaction with their context. How is it that we, as Rolfers, participate in this transformative process? Over the years, our philosophical perspective has rejected dualism and positivism in favor of a phenomenological approach. We have also taken a holistic stance, envisioning the person as a unified system comprising the various dimensions of being and that system, in turn, as a constituent of various larger systems as the person interacts with the environment. We view the body in its context, and the person in relationship. But seeing the person as both a system relating to other systems and as part of a greater whole presents a singular challenge in our work: if, when we address one system, we affect all others, from where should we start? Which starting point will best further our goal, and which techniques and approaches must we master to intervene at that starting point? To answer these questions, we need a systematic approach that better contains our vision.

Our four main taxonomies – structural, functional, energetic and psychobiological are gateways to understanding our clients. They help us to perceive, strategize and work. Each of them has its own nature and requires specific techniques, working styles and abilities. For example, in the structural taxonomy, one thing we look for is competence within the fascial net. We need to master the specifics, the details, the joint by-joint connections and the relationship of each to the big picture. As Michael and Jeff discussed, this requires the ability to perceive and work in the intra articular dimension. Similarly, in the functional taxonomy, we analyze how the structure moves in relation to space – its coordination and efficiency. Structural integration is logically equivalent to Functional Economy. Here, movement techniques are welcome.

But when it comes to human beings and their idiosyncrasies, each body is an expression of the uniqueness and mystery of the particular person, carrying the history and understanding that formed that person’s body as it lives now. This is the subjective: it colors all movement, makes each structure unique, and presents us with the true challenge of understanding – as well as of finding our space and our ability to be a part of the transformation of the being. How does this person perceive? How does this body reflect the perceptual style? How does this style, in turn, affect the movement and structure? How does it all serve or limit the person’s being? Most of all, how does the person relate to the function and structure – the somatic aspects of being in the world? What is the personal meaning underlying what is shown and lived? And, how do we address the meaning inherent in the structural and functional arrangement?


Our physical, emotional and social histories shape our structural and functional patterns. These patterns, in turn, shape our current experiences and how we relate to them. They influence what we consider good or bad, desirable or aversive, likeable or indifferent, meaningful or not. And we form concepts about things or situations – e.g., that one is good or another bad. Through this combination of cognitive and emotional activity, we assign names to things and experiences; and these names, in turn, will evoke both concepts and emotions.

Meaning is no mere intellectual construct or activity; it goes beyond that to encompass one’s feelings toward an event, a body part, or a movement style. Nor it is bound exclusively to emotional content. Rather, it comprehends both the cognitive and emotional dimensions simultaneously, and represents one’s ultimate sense of something. What’s more, meaning is both a subjective individual fact and a cultural one. So, when we look for the meaning of something, we’re looking first to the individual’s response, but also to how the individual shares that response (or not) in common with others.

Our body/ minds, working as one, thus create and maintain the structural, functional and psychobiological patterns we use to navigate physical, emotional and social situations. Discovering meanings, along with the awareness names can give us, has the potential to free us from faulty, ineffective or arbitrary patterns in this regard, thus allowing us to transform our way of being in the world.

Working with meaning is an edge for us. We have all seen changes without words: patterns the client is ready to drop do drop when we put our hands in just the right place. But we have also seen “changes” that disappear the very minute we turn our backs. In these cases, the clients do not own their processes and challenges, perhaps because they have not discovered their meaning. The clients do not know how to regain what they were seeking – if, indeed, they ever even knew what they were seeking.

For Rolfers, some degree of fear or felt ineptitude is often present around the subjective, the cognitive, the verbal, and the emotional. Many times, we take cover under the assumption that as structure and function change, expression and experience will change, as well; i.e., that patterns and their meaning will resolve as an automatic consequence of physical change alone. Indeed, this does sometimes happen. The absence of any discussion or awareness of meaning at the time a physical change occurs does not mean that something good did not happen. What’s more, meaning has its own rhythm and timing. Often it will not reveal itself to consciousness until after – sometimes long after the physical change. That having been said, the expectation that this layer should somehow take care of itself can limit the effectiveness of our work.

As much as we have always paid lip-service to meaning, the psychobiological aspect has not yet received sufficient emphasis in either our teaching or in the development of our work. The likely reasons for this highlight the extent of the challenge in openly exploring it.

First, it takes a long time to truly shift one’s habitual philosophic paradigm. It is hard to abandon the positivistic perspective of the I/ You, me-doing-to-you thing. In body readings, we often fall into the trap of objectifying the human being in front of us. We look at relationships and declare “what they are.” Then we choose a technique and do it to the client. In this frame of mind, we feel like heroes when it works and blame the client when it does not.

Second, many believe that the psychobiological dimension is beyond our scope. Because we are not psychologists, some believe we should not deal with the subjective – especially as it approaches the emotional realm. “It’s not our job,” we say; “We should refer to a psychotherapist.” This attitude can come with the hope of keeping us on the safe side of things, and does honor the reality that our ability to engage clients over highly subjective and aroused content is limited by the absence of specialized training not included in either the basic Rolfing” curriculum or in the Advanced Training. However, the same attitude can also detach us from the therapeutic relationship and from the client’s process in that the most we do – should subjective material arise – is wait for the release to run its course and hold the container.

Finally, we sometimes convince ourselves that we can separate the psychobiological aspect from the other aspects of being. We do not – or perhaps will not – understand that meaning is crucial not only to the organization of the structure and the quality of movement, but more profoundly, to the organization of the interaction between the person and the environment. And this last, after all, is fundamental to Rolfing as an exploration of the embodied experience.

What, then, is the nature of work with meaning in the context of Rolfing? First, let’s observe that meaning sometimes gets confused with emotion – which, in turn, can get confused with emotional problems or pathologies. Traditionally, we have defined our scope as detached from the emotional in the sense of pathology, leaving this realm to the psychologists. As wise as this might be in itself, it leads us to forget that emotional pathology is only part of meaning. And the fact is, as Rolfers, we are bumping up against meaning every day. It is part of the phenomena that we’re imbedded in, and in that sense it is part of our scope. Therefore, we must address it. We must find our own way to deal with meaning and emotions in the body. As hard as this might seem, we will not resolve the difficulty by ignoring it. Psychotherapists and others have approaches, training and techniques to address emotions, but Rolfers need to develop and value their own approach to meaning and emotions in the body. Ours is a different perspective.

Perhaps now, with the benefit of the Principles of Intervention; a variety of increasingly sophisticated taxonomies of structural evaluation; and the development of Rolfing techniques by the Advanced Faculty and others to address the articular and visceral layers, it is time to develop our work with meaning.

Historically, Rolf Movement teaching has recognized the importance of meaning in respect to how one carries oneself in the world. Long ago, techniques were developed to address it; e.g., the contrast technique to anchor new patterns, the work with language to evoke tissue response, and the systematic subjective exploration of a pattern in pattern recognition.

Just as gravity unites our structural and functional perspectives, it is also the key to working with meaning. The exploration is how subjective meaning affects the person’s organization and function in gravity.

And, just as the Principles of Intervention guide our strategies for manipulation and movement approaches, they can also guide our strategies in the realm of the subjective. The challenge is to explore, discuss and master this layer of our work.


In a recent Advanced Training in Brazil, we undertook this challenge. We addressed structural, functional and psychobiological dimensions individually-but also played with their interactions, exploring and weaving the work among them.

Starting from the first interview, body reading (with photos) and movement analysis (videoing a movement sequence), we tried to understand which dimension was most pertinent to the client’s goals. Next, we tried to see how the client’s issues manifested in all dimensions. We practiced translations to make bridges among the dimensions. For example, how does a functional issue (carpal tunnel problems, perhaps) manifest in the structure or in movement, and how might it affect other aspects of the client’s life. Or, how might sadness over a loss in the family manifest in the structure and affect the client’s movement? Whatever the client’s issue, we first explored where it seemed to come from; then observed how it appeared in the body and in movement; and then asked what it might mean for the person. This allowed us to explore from the objective into the subjective realms, and vice-versa.

Next, we explored and refined the techniques pertinent to each layer- from direct to indirect structural manipulation, through functional exploration, and into the subjective meaning of the embodied experience.

Structurally, we deepened our facility for working in the articular system. We studied the anatomy in depth and learned Rolfing techniques to release fixations in every single joint of the body.

Functionally, we re-examined the ten-session recipe to further our understanding of its inherent functional logic. Then, we revised it to include explicitly the functional perspective and functional techniques. This exploration combined with an improved understanding of the bio-mechanics of coordination patterns and how changes in these patterns facilitate releases of structural patterns and vice-versa – allowed us to strategize precise and economical local interventions in the structure and track their functional consequences.

At the same time, we kept in mind that our structural and functional interventions involved real people and their subjective dimensions. Addressing the psychobiological perspective required us to be open to exploring the meaning that each pattern – and the Rolfing process itself – had for the client. Because meaning is subjective, we studied non-directive approaches to elicit the meanings of the client’s behavior; and to bridge the client’s awareness of meaning to the physical body, through their function and into their structure. As a class, we organized techniques to honor the psychobiological dimension. These helped the Rolfers to be present in and to respect the limits of the therapeutic relationship, operating safely within the subjective dimension without dismissing it.

In short, we explored techniques for working in each dimension individually, but also developed a way of working that would play with them all together. The clinical contact was enriched by our acknowledgement of those layers and the bridges among them – by our keeping the connections in the backs of our minds, always looking for how phenomena in any given taxonomy would be carried through to the others. This allowed us to track the physical and mental aspects of transformation simultaneously. How is the structure? How does it move? What is the person’s experience with this structure and function? How do these structural and functional patterns serve the person?


When working in the dimension of meaning, we took care above all not to impose our own hypotheses or interpretations on the clients. As meaning is subjective, it is the client who gives the meaning to his or her experiences and, inherently, the client is always right. Remembering that somatic expression of meaning is unique for each person, we avoided mapping correlations between particular structural or functional patterns, on the one hand, and psychobiological states, on the other hand. In the end, it is from the consciousness of the client and of the client only that true meaning emerges. What we can do is create a context in which the client is invited not forced to explore this layer, should the client choose to make it available.

The first step for us, as practitioners, was to be open to allowing meaning to arise at its own pace and in its own time, which requires being open to the unexpected. We employed the technique of floating attention, which is a particular way of being present: we opened ourselves to receive the client as a person, rather than analyze the client as an object. Floating attention requires diffuse focus (which allows us to see new things and make new associations), rather than directed focus (which restricts us to seeing mainly what we already know). To receive structural configurations, gestures and words with floating attention is to practice empathy for the person’s experience, which allows us to form (only) hypotheses about possible meaning. With floating attention, we positioned ourselves to recognize and not miss the event when subjective material arose spontaneously.

We also practiced attending to autonomic nervous system responses during hands-on work to allow appropriate pacing and enough time for the clients to process their sensations. We paid particular attention to quality of touch and when to use receptive, directive, or evocative styles. And we attended to our own sensations as we worked, as these can provide clues as to what the client might be experiencing.

In each session, we made time for the client to carry the physical changes into gravity and the environment. This was a particularly good time in which to invite the client to explore the meaning of the changes with open-ended questions about the quality of the somatic experience; e.g., “How is it for you to be there / move that way / receive the world like that?” Often, although we might think the client looks better or moves better, the client is not entirely comfortable with the change. This is a particularly rich opportunity for the client to explore the secondary benefits – i.e., the meaning – of the old pattern.


At first, all of this might seem pretentious and unrealistic. But at a fundamental level, we concretized what the students already had and brought in some new techniques. Most of all, we created a context in which to systematize the finding and naming of tools, insights and feelings. This allowed each of us to acknowledge our own existing resources. Together, we realized that our resources were far greater than we had first thought. It was a matter of having the courage to face the perspective and accept it. Slowly, we gathered a repertoire, starting with acknowledgement of existing resources. We developed an attitude, a stance, a role, to allow each of us to find a place within ourselves from which to deal with this dimension. Of course, each student had unique strong points and weak points – an individual edge. The key was to stay with it, live it, name it, share it and find group support for each student’s process.

Part of the challenge was to be realistic about the extent to which the skills required to address meaning could even be imparted in the limited context of the Advanced Training. After all, we are structural integrators and no amount of intention or attention on meaning in an Advanced Training can make us competent body centered psychotherapists or trauma workers any more than inclusion of articular techniques can make us osteopaths. How, then, can we acknowledge this dimension of meaning skillfully and delicately, without overstepping our professional qualifications and personal abilities – not to mention the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship? In other words, how can we address meaning within the context of structural and functional integration?

First, to be absolutely clear, our goal was mainly to keep the door open to explore the dimension of meaning as it influenced the clients’ structural and functional patterns. We did not set out to wring or force meaning from the clients for its own sake. On the whole, whether or not the psychobiological dimension came to the fore depended on the individual client’s layer of availability, rather than on our efforts. When the meaning layer was available, we had only to ask, “What does this mean to you?” Encouraging the clients to explore the dimension of meaning turned out not to be so momentous or difficult as one might think.

Next, honestly to recognize our own limitations alongside our possibilities both individually and as a profession was essential. Each student came to the Advanced Training with different experiences and skill sets. Obviously, a student who also happened to be a trained psychologist had a different edge from one who was not. And the students had varying degrees of personal comfort and interpersonal and language skills with which to explore material that the clients presented. The idea was for each student to get comfortable with and stretch his or her own edge.

We also worked around how to recognize when the dimension of meaning for a particular client was likely to surpass our personal or professional resources when indeed we should be suggesting that the client consult another professional with specialized training. In this connection, we also worked on techniques for observing when a client’s process might be approaching realms beyond our ken – and in such cases, how to bring the client back and bound the process to what we and the client, as individuals, are prepared to handle. After all, it is one thing to discuss a pattern arising from compensation for an injury and another thing altogether to delve into something like incest or ritual abuse without re-traumatizing the client. In other words, as much as we learned when to recognize and acknowledge meaning, we also worked on when not to press forward.

Tracking Our Process

The success of our approach depended on careful monitoring of both client and student processes. We followed a system for registering our experiences, which included several questionnaires. The first gathered client input from the initial interview. The clients also completed feedback forms, which not only provided us with information, but also gave them space in which to reflect on their processes. Finally, the students made case reports from their own perspectives on the processes of their clients. We tracked these forms throughout our work.

This formal registration of data served several purposes. First, the data were kept fresh and available. Along with the client photos and videos, they were a resource for clients and students alike. Second, they gave an opportunity for all participants to reflect on events. Finally, it allowed the students to practice communication among colleagues and as a community to develop a common language.

Adequate Supervision

The students’ work was thoroughly supervised. Although client interviews and body readings were private (students were allowed to invite an instructor or another classmate to join, with the client’s permission), each student had to inform the instructor before each session of his or her principle based strategy. And most important, after each round of traditionally supervised sessions, we analyzed them in the context of the structural, functional and psychobiological perspectives. The idea was first to receive the way the student conceived the work; and then while respecting and validating each student’s personal style to include new material and supervise its use. Practicing, and then thinking and communicating, allowed us to develop our consciousness and our language.

The Outcome

The results of our approach went beyond deepening the students’ anatomical knowledge, palpatory certainty or technical ability to perceive more and work with a broader repertoire of techniques. Having their perceptions grounded in the clients’ functional manifestations also helped, as they had to deal with living, moving beings. It’s big to understand biomechanical patterns in movement especially through a Rolfer’s structural and functional eyes.

But when we approached the meaning level the subjective component a new light came in and the students’ understanding of the physical patterns gained another dimension, which fed back into the relationship and deeply influenced the choices of strategies. The continual coaching (through supervision and reports), which was focused on this integrated thinking, allowed the students to feel safe in venturing into the realm of meaning. The human component was highlighted and the relationship between the client and the practitioner was honored from a higher perspective.

It has been said that one of the goals of an Advanced Training is to respect, recognize, enhance and improve the personal style of the student through greater information and more techniques. In our training, this was achieved mainly by creating conditions that allowed development of the students’ sensitivity to apply their knowledge in the context of a relationship to modulate the interactions, and to be more precise as to which dimension of the being their strategies were aimed at, while also understanding how the other dimensions were affected.

It gave an interesting edge to the class. We worked from big to small and back again from detail to relationship to environment, and vice versa always anchored in the somatic experience of the person undergoing the transformation. The students learned to accept the challenges of unfolding a pattern and transforming it as a living experience as it was happening and adjusting techniques and approaches to the actual clinical case in the moment.

Here are some participants’ reports of their experiences with our Advanced Training:

Student: Over the years, I have been taking continuing education classes, doing non formulistic sessions, and staying in contact with more experienced Rolfers. I wondered what more the Advanced Training might teach me. Certainly, to make better bridges and relationships among subjects and elements I already knew, but did not always use.

For sure, I am now really looking at and comprehending the “Circle of Being. “I have a better idea of a person’s structure and function. I understand that these are wrapped up in the person’s experience and history; and how people’s attitudes about themselves and the world are reflected in their bodies, their movements, and their inhibitions of movement.

I got more clarity in how to observe and work with clients. And most important, I learned how to use these insights for transformation – without judgment, in more effective and respectful interventions. This is a refinement in the therapeutic relationship. It was a pleasant surprise how much the Advanced Training could offer and impart.

Student: “I think the focus on meaning was a real innovation in our class. But for me, the highlight of the training was working with how to integrate the various dimensions of the human experience.

It was great for us to have the opportunity to reflect together and exchange ideas about the nature of the work and the evolution of Rolfing here in Brazil and in the world and also for me to reflect on my own professional path over the last ten years.

This class redefined Rolfing for me personally. Exploring new and deeper aspects of the work actually pulled a lot of things together toward a center for me and raised my work to a different plateau of maturity.”

Class Model: “The advanced Rolfing process was marvelous for me, both physically and psychologically. My poor posture has always bothered me, and I used to suffer frequent back pains and constant headaches. After the advanced series, my perception of my body changed. In my day-to-day life I’m feeling more secure, and I have a more mature consciousness regarding my body. I became aware of my poor postural habits and what they meant to me, and this was a revelation.”


Through honoring and integrating the omnipresent dimension of meaning, the class participants were able to explore together a new edge of Rolfing as a clinical, scientific and philosophic endeavor and at the same time become more mature as individual practitioners.

Our ultimate purpose as Rolfers is to serve humans in their journeys through life. To me, this Advanced Training was above all an opportunity to explore the art of relationship. It offered us space to explore the ultimate human concerns that bring us all together in the first place: our wish to serve and participate in human transformation while at the same time transforming ourselves.

Special thanks to Heidi Massa for helping me to concretize and articulate my thinking on this material.

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